Club Ikebukuro

by Monty DiPietro

It was around the middle of May that hundreds of mysterious "Club Ikebukuro – The Event" postcards began appearing in the mail boxes of people in Tokyo’s arts community. The simple white cards bore no contact names, numbers, or addresses – only an invitation to: "Bring your own booze, food, paints, brushes, etc., be ready to make art." The rendezvous was set for 10:00PM on Saturday May 22nd at Ikebukuro station’s West Exit Park. The "drinking and painting" would continue, the postcards promised, for 24 hours straight.

And it did. The brainchild of American painter Eric Sanner, "Club Ikebukuro" attracted 25 painters, photographers, and poets. The marathon event produced dozens of drawings, paintings, and mixed media works, which will join photo and video documentation in "Club Ikebukuro – The Exhibition," at the TEPCO gallery space, also located in Tokyo’s Toshima ward.

Sanner, 28, says the event grew out of painting parties he first threw while living in nothing-to-do China, and continued when he moved to the Japanese countryside five years ago: "I would get five or ten people together and we’d get drunk, then I’d take out a bunch of acrylic paint and sketchpads, and we’d paint."

Sanner became interested in the bustling Ikebukuro West Exit park while he and poet Brian Heagney were working on "The 29 Stations of the Yamanote Line," a multi-media exhibition that showed at Ben’s Café in Takadanobaba earlier this month. In his independent publication, "points around a line" Heagney wrote poems about the stations on Tokyo’s favorite train loop. At "Club Ikebukuro," he is jotting in a notebook that will be part of the TEPCO show.

In a city where art can be highly formalized, it is refreshing to find the sort of young artists who believe in taking it to the streets. "So what if millions of people go and see a bunch of Picasso paintings that they’ve already seen millions of times as reproductions," says Sanner, "the way artists can really connect and people can grow is by actually doing things like painting. Picasso would want you to be doing your own painting." Well, not if Picasso suffered some of the stuff being labored out at "Club Ikebukuro," he wouldn’t. But quality control is not the point here, participation is.

Sitting cross-legged on the ground, a guy called Koyama is executing what he terms "radiation drawings." Meanwhile, working with yellow highlight marker on a large fold-out Tokyo map, Timothy Laden is tracing a pair of "sexy lips" over Ikebukuro, "because it’s such a sexy place."

As more corks pop and more cheap wine is drunk, Sanner sits smiling and squeezing more cobalt blue onto the piece of ripped cardboard box that sits before him. He is painting a picture of the big government building behind him, so he keeps turning around to look up, during which time he tends to get distracted and fall into conversation with the cast of co-participants. In a few hours, the bunch will meet the dawn, and reinforcements will arrive to pick up where those who have passed out left off. By 10:00PM Sunday night the site will be a beautiful mess, and after a fair bit of scrubbing with brushes and hot water, the ad hoc guerilla artists will call it a day.

An event like "Club Ikebukuro," if it ever even happens again, is not about to transform Tokyo into the drunken-bohemian-painter city that was, say, Paris of the 20s or New York of the 50s. But there was a sanguine moment, just before the homeless started their pre-dawn fist-fight, when the smell of cheap wine and oil paint coalesced – and somewhere in the blinking of a bloodshot eye, this concrete patch of Tokyo became warm, and almost romantic.

notes: The TEPCO gallery show runs June 14-June 18, 1999 (3910-5489).
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